Tag Archives: rush

Chickenman, Signing Off

Two weeks of every summer of my pre-teen and teen years were spent on Long Beach Island, following a script that reflected the 1970s in so many ways: fresh pastry for breakfast, a quick jaunt off the beach for lunch, and before the advent of smart phones and digital music, entertainment in the form of magazines, books, puzzles, and broadcast radio. Each and every weekday — ten of the fourteen, the quieter days when most of the fathers you saw were truly on vacation and not shuttling back to a (hopefully foreshortened) work week — we tuned into WJRZ-FM at lunchtime, ostensibly to hear the news, somewhat ironically to hear Paul Harvey’s meta-news delivery and the ultimate entertainment, an episode of Dick Orkin’s “Chickenman”.

Here’s what I remember about listening to WJRZ: It provided me a sense that radio could really be that “companion unobtrusive”, and yet the top-40 format left room for Peter Frampton and Genesis. I cherished the local ads (“the Ship Bottom Motor Lodge, the one and only circular motel on the island”) to the point that I believe many hours spent in the 1980s producing ads for WPRB-FM were the by-product of knowing that a 10 second intro could capture the sights, smells and tastes of a favorite place with description alone. Marking time through the wide range of music, syndicated news, national and local advertisements and relatively unknown DJs, for the extent of those summers, was the daily episode of Chickenman. Like clockwork, you could count it on for moving along a story that was basically about nothing — no super powers, no crimes real or imagined, no serious tension. It was Seinfeld and The Office before we knew that nothing could be funny.

Listening to Chickenman, a campy send up of Batman and the radio serializations of a prior decade, my sister and I decided that we could write and record our own episodes and have some fun. So my love of recording and production began with a cheap cassette recorder and a pencil to precisely wind the tapes. Chickenman had a brief fling with environmental consciousness as the series wound down in popularity, but Benton Harbor (Chickenman’s Clark Kent) couldn’t make social justice trendy. And the next summer I brought a portable stereo to LBI with a milk crate of vinyl, choosing the music and the pacing and slowly fading WJRZ and Chickenman into the wonderful, sunset tinged memories of endless summers.

But as the outro squawked, “he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere” and we never really forgot the feathered non-crime non-fighter, not until today when Dick Orkin died. Indirectly, those five minute intervals of his shared creativity — less than an hour of each summer — led me into college radio, music production, advertising, public speaking, sales, and through a transitive closure that would make Godel blush, these very blog entries.

Man Your Own Jackhammers

Over the years I’ve had to explain the appeal of Yes, Rush and Phish to various music fans, not always from the stance of an apologist but usually in answer to “Why do you listen to that?” When I mention Coheed and Cambria, add in “Who are they?”

The answers flow freely from a mix of outstanding musicianship, intense live performances, creative composition that breaks out of the 1-2-3-4 rock box, and a near Talmudic scholar depth to lyrical interpretation. To be fair, it took me about three months to truly appreciate Coheed and Cambria’s catalog, having found a seat on the fence (sorry) just as their fifth and subject-of-debate album, “Year of the Black Rainbow” was released. Coheed’s canon (first five, and first seven if you count the pre-prequel “Afterman” albums) convey a Herbert-detail level space opera with killer viruses, intergalactic despots, robots, love, betrayal, redemption, and battle. Set it all to insanely complex composition and that’s Coheed in a nutshell.

Disassemble it a bit and you’ll find traces of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, “Star Wars,” Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, and La Boheme. Were I to teach a college course in operatic sci-fi, the background reading would be John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” (ref: The Writing Writer in Good Apollo), Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” (ref: Monstar virus and a visceral background for “The Broken”), Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (ref: trust and relationships, the Jesse character in the Amory Wars), Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” (ref: recycled personalities in times of crisis, Coheed and Cambria themselves), and Frank Herbert’s original “Dune” (ref: loyalty, fealty, assassination under duress — Dr Uwe in Dune, the creation of the Monstar virus and eventually “Pearl of the Stars”). When I hear the “Man your own jackhammers” chorus of “In Keeping Secrets,” my mind goes to the Fremen/House Harkonnen battle in “Dune”, where the desert army reclaims their stronghold with primitive yet functional weapons.

It’s that chorus, the quintessential bit of obscure lyricism coupled with outrageous riff, that captures why I love Coheed and Cambria: seeing them live. You will never find a more intense and informed group of fans who are equally rocking out yet respectful of their fellow concert goers. Despite being packed three thousand deep on the floor of Terminal 5, there was absolutely no bad behavior – no elbows, no shoving, no copious quantities of spilled beer or anything else gnarly – just lots of what Claudio Sanchez called “Coheed karaoke.” When you look slightly left, catch the eye of someone 30 years your junior whose first thought is likely “What’s the old guy doing here” followed by “Oh, he knows the song” and you both go back to belting out the chorus, you’re inflated by the same feeling as seeing a touchdown in the Super Bowl or a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. These are your unnamed yet contextually well known friends, the world’s best seat mates for the few hour journey that stimulates whatever deep visual, aural and olfactory memories you associate with the music.

Each Coheed show is slightly different; each solo, each interpretation, each choice of when to let the audience sing or to lead from the front of stage. At the break between the “album part” of the show and the encores, front man Claudio Sanchez offered two sincere explanations – first, that the entire band was sick (you wouldn’t know from the previous 90 minutes of music, another testament to their work ethic and musicianship) and second, that the voice of the little girl on “Good Apollo” was his (then) three year old niece, at a time when he was far from fatherhood himself. Ten years later, his niece was on the stage side, enjoying the show, Claudio talked about life on the road and missing his own son, and the show resonated with any number of us in any number of new ways. This is the future of music: outstanding performance and authentic presence.

Hall Of Fame Lifecycle

In the span of 24 hours I revisited forty years of parenting, music and sports.

Friday night we attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction at the Barlcays Center in Brooklyn, mostly to see two-thirds of Rush (inducted a few years ago) do the honors for Yes, my all-time favorite band and the core of so much of my love of music. Saturday took us to the other new hockey arena in the tri-state area, this time to see Patrik Elias take one final pre-game lap as he has announced his retirement from the NHL. Elias cemented us as Devils fans, not just for bringing home two Stanley Cups (and two more Finals appearances) but for his loyalty, work ethic, and popular presence in the local area. His number will be retired by the Devils in 2017-18, and he is a likely NHL Hall of Fame candidate. Over the course of two nights in two big rinks, we saw the past, present and future of various testaments to craft well plied, through the lens of our past, present and future love of music and sports.

The similarities between the two nights were subtle but present: Playing — sports or music — is critical to our enjoyment. Seeing something live gives you context and texture and experience that you can’t get from recorded or televised events. Our heroes, whether known to us personally or just from the backs of their sports cards and record sleeves, influence our approach and goals and style. Our greatest moments of joy are often theirs as well.

Hearing Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson describe the influence Yes had on them as teenage musicians was priceless; it was a peek past the close of the “R40” tour that wrapped all the way around to the beginning of Rush time. Devin Harrison connecting Jeff Lynne’s ELO to his late father, and Geddy Lee invoking the awesome power of Chris Squire’s bass lines by sitting in with Yes on “Roundabout” made it feel as if both musical icons were smiling from on high. From past to present to future – Elias was greeted at center ice for the ceremonial face off by his wife and daughters, a surprise that made all in attendance (including Patrik himself) tear up; they are the influences on his future life.

Time Stand Still: The Rush Movie

I went to the big screen premier of Time Stand Still [Blu-ray], the Rush documentary that tracks the band through the spiral of their final R40 tour. I went in with the usual assortment of bittersweet thoughts and linkages: “Time Stand Still” is one my favorite Rush songs, dating from my first show; it was the first Rush event in years that I was not attending side by side with my son, to whom I’ve passed the Rush fandom baton; it would re-open the grievous and grieving mood I was in after attending the Las Vegas show last summer, knowing it was likely the last time I’d see the three magicians of prog rock on stage.

I loved the movie. It wasn’t melancholy or upsetting or even maudlin; it was a celebration of being a misfit Rush fan and knowing that for as long as people listen to “2112” or “Hemispheres” with awe and air drumming, we will all share a bit of a common club culture. What I took away was that live performance is hard, which I knew from reading Peart’s books, but that it’s physicall and emotionally hard on all three members of the band, and that if they cannot, consistently, completely and confidently, execute their music at the top of the abilities, they’ll stop playing live.

At once, the movie captured the how and why of being indoctrinated into this strange club (certainly I was a fan before 1990 when I went to the “Hold Your Fire” tour in Worcester and was suddenly on another plane); it explained the incongruity of a band that’s ranked third in album sales, that has effectively no Top 40 hits, and yet sells out major arenas for an entire summer at $100 a ducat. It was a directional indicator of the future of the music business: live shows, solid fan interaction, producing music that you believe in.

Having now seen some of my favorite bands in the later parts of their career arcs, and constantly comparing them to previous shows, it’s safe to say I agree that the last 3-4 Rush shows I saw were the best — not just the best Rush shows, but among the singular best rock concerts I’ve attended in forty years. And so a funny, touching, “behind the scenes” look (Spoiler: Alex Lifeson doing a soundcheck of “Subdivisions” in screamo style is still cracking me up a week later) at the band as they finished touring on their terms, with their instruments held high, was not sad — it was a re-affirmation of why I took Ben to see them when he was four years old.

Ben and I, along with millions of other Rush fans, are much richer for the experiences.

Watch the movie, especially if you don’t get the Dirk, Pratt and Lerxst references, because you might just understand. Or at least I Love You, Man will make sense.

Summer Without Drums

Labor Day in the Stern family is typically framed by melancholy: end of the summer, return from the beach, re-instatement of the rules of school and work and schedules, and a careful consideration of the warm weather soundtrack.

Summer 2016 ends without drums, but ends well this Labor Day.

I am somewhat surprised, but shouldn’t be, by the synchronicity and short-radix connectedness of life in New Jersey, the last two weeks of which have revolved around a drum set. Seven years ago, eager to cement our house’s foundation as the practice home of our son’s band, I bought a gently used drum set from a work friend. One of the best conversations of my marriage went something like this: “Where are you?” “On my way to Mount Olive to get the drum set” (pause) “Where will it go?” “In the basement studio, so the boys can practice there without having to move a drum set around” (pause) “Good idea.” And so, over Labor Day weekend, a Pearl Forum drum set came to rest in our basement, and with a few purchases from pre-overt-creepy Craigslist we added cymbals, cymbal stands, a hi hat clutch and some new heads. And the world’s most hideous carpet remnant that sat under the whole trap (as I’ve learned, a diminutive of “contraption” which most delicately describes our kit).

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

Over the course of the next seven years, that Pearl of an impulse purchase powered many band practices (including the recording of the never released “Out Of The Basement”), a college application supplemental submission, and one of my furtive attempts to discover skills beyond technology management in my post-Oracle pre-Juniper days (Yes, I took drum lessons that I won at a silent auction, and no, my inner Neil Peart failed to materialize). Despite a few reconfigurations, the drums have sat largely unplayed for the better part of four years.

Last week a high school friend asked if anyone had a beginner’s drum set for sale to one of his students; it seemed coincidental that I’ve been considering how to clean up the basement lately and make more room for the overhang of our adult children’s lives. A suitable sales price and meeting location were agreed upon, and then this week I had the confluence of decidedly different but related thoughts and acts. Having finished season one of “Roadies” (highly recommended!), I fondly recounted my two attempts at being a roadie for the boys’ band, packing up the drum set, amps, and guitars into my car for a school gig. While “Roadies” made me wishful for a work life that intersected professional music a bit more, the drum set reminded me of the practicalities of that life. The drum set was broken down, shells stacked, stands arrayed as oversized silverware, cymbals still clamoring for attention through improper loading, and packed into the car one final time.

For the second time in consecutive summers, I found myself facing a musical coda, and I was equally unhappy about it, as if Labor Day was tweaking my nose in my mid-adult years to remind me that sometimes the calendar wins. The small trap kit arrayed on an ugly rug in a high school gym was the closing image of Rush’s R40 tour, the last shows of which the Bubba and I attended just last summer, leaving a void in our musical world that I still feel. And just yesterday, a copy of Neil Peart’s “Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me!”, the tour travelogue and photographic yearbook of that R40 tour, arrived.

Having delivered the drums to their new owner — not too much younger than me, so elated to have a kit of his own, ready to take them on the roads up and down the Jersey shore, accompanied by promises of invitations to shows and gigs and inclusion once again in that broader musical world — I came home and cracked open Peart’s book. What he describes in the opening chapters is a rational and passionate explanation for his retirement, akin to that of a professional athlete, as a gentle staging to what comes next rather than any kind of failure or discord (or dischord). With just that bit of prose, I felt immensely better about selling the (nearly moss-covered) family drum kit. I’ve closed the book on my life as a roadie, drum tech, aging air drummer, and nearly a decade’s worth of summers with drums, leaving me with a distinct appreciation of the timekeeper’s craft.

Moving Pictures and Life in Thirds

Rush’s “Moving Pictures” turns 35 this weekend, released February 12, 1981. While I had a passing interest in the trio before then, having heard “Spirit of the Radio” on New York and Philly FM stations with some regularity, it was “Limelight” and “Tom Sawyer”, played first on WYSP (Trenton) and then religiously on my own brand-new component stereo system that turned me into a lifelong Rush fan. It’s the only album that my sister and I both purchased (aside from some Partridge Family noise of the 1970s, but you get a hall pass for music you whine your parents into buying at a 7-11). It has one of the most visually pun-rich covers (on the front, men moving art, and the secondary pun of people moved by the moving art, on the back, the sight gag that the whole front shot was a moving picture set), which has infused recursive references into Rush tour interstitials for the ensuring 35 years. It’s nerd nirvana before you even drop the tone arm on the first track, the phased shifted, slightly spacey opening punch of “Tom Sawyer.” That was me, in every sense, in 1981.

"Moving Pictures" front cover (source: Wikipedia)

“Moving Pictures” front cover (source: Wikipedia)

Moving Pictures neatly divides my life into thirds reflected around the axis of my relationship with Rush: its release; their hiatus; and their semi-official retirement.

“Moving Pictures” is one of the few albums I can listen to end to end, finding something different each time, depending upon my mood and the context. The morning commute is enriched by “Camera Eye” as much as “Red Barchetta”. I find codon-inspired irony in using “YYZ” as an MTV-like soundtrack for EWR, SFO or FRA; it was the song that introduced me to 3-letter airport codes which have defined the vertices of my business graph since 1989. “Vital Signs” had an eerie video that I caught on Don Kirschner’s late night “Rock Concert” while home over some school break, and the “breaking sound” on YYZ is still one of the best recorded and appropriate effects in any rock song (it’s the sound of wind chimes being slapped against a wood table, not a brick thrown through a plate glass window as many of us believed). “Moving Pictures” was one of the first albums I bought after carefully weighing the opportunity cost of the $8 investment of my summer earnings (about three hours of after-tax pay, at that time), an anchor store to an album collection that expanded from under 100 to over 600 vinyl sleeves in about six years. Seeing Rush perform the whole album at Madison Square Garden, with my son and some friends in tow, was a life experience. Attempting to learn the bass lines to some of that music cements my position that it represents Geddy Lee at his technical and phrasing best, not just following the guitar lines but leading a wholly counterpoint melody that pulls the listener in all sorts of aural adventures.

First period: “Moving Pictures” makes me a rock and roll listener, for life.

The next 18 years are classic young adulthood: jobs, marriage, kids, multiple moves, the cultural void that comes from having young children, and then my insistence that our kids listen to “good music” rather than Barney or Raffi. Our kids were raised on a diet of classic rock before having an XM station made that a bit easier. Our daughter’s first “big concert” was seeing Santana in August 1995, the night Jerry Garcia died, an intense confluence of introducing a new generation to “my music” and also having a larger than life force in that music taken from us. It was the first time I had that feeling, and one that has become far too frequent in the last few years. For our son, his indoctrination came two years later, just a few months after his third birthday, when we caught the Holy Trinity at PNC Bank Arts Center. That show was one for the ages, opening with “Dreamline” (which Ben referred to as “We Are Young”, a reference to the chorus) and bookended by “Red Barchetta” and “Limelight” near the open with “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ” at the close. It was as close to a perfect concert experience as you could get for a young fan, with liberal doses of songs he knew coupled with introductions to newer (or older) material that would become part of his musical heritage over the next 18 years.

Two months after that show, Rush went on hiatus as Neil Peart handled tragedies in his personal life. Second period: I graduate from technical adult to parenting adult, and the foundation of a father-son relationship is laid only to be quietly subdued again.

What “Moving Pictures” was for my formative music listening years, “Vapor Trails” was for Ben – a vivid, acoustically wonderful set of experiences. Four years into the last third of the current storyline, Rush returned to our lives, and we began a decade plus of ten concerts that took us from New Jersey to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. If you look carefully along the left side of this arena photograph (framed in both of my offices), where the seats meet the floor, you’ll see us cheering, singing, punching the air along with “The Temples of Syrinx” from the Boston Garden show of October 2012, Ben’s freshman year at university, the song set to play again one generational octave lower. And then, with this year’s summer show in Las Vegas, just in time for my 53rd birthday, Rush implied their retirement from touring, and perhaps from music. And so we find ourselves back at the second intermission once again, a young adult and a middle-aged adult, wondering if there’s an extra stanza to come.

Never underestimate the power of music to forge lifelong connections, a sentiment proven by scientific research sponsored by Sonos and Apple (two major contributors to my music listening experience in the current frame), and replete with suggestions for finding the right musical accompaniment to your Valentine’s Day. For me, the final third has about a year to go — one filled with music, Rush references, puns, bass lessons, parenting, summer concert tours, and thinking in thirds, fourths and fifths.

Thanks To The Boys From The Office

Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer, refers to his bandmates as “the guys from the office.” After all, they’ve been working together, creating together, touring together and building a brand together for more than forty years, and the quintessential working men of rock and roll must have some sense of office space. And so, facing the last three weeks of their last big arena tour, what is implied as the denouement of their touring years, it’s time for some proper acknowledgements.

Thank you for helping me introduce then four-year-old Ben to live music. His first show was during the Counterparts tour, in 1998, and he stood on his seat at the PNC Bank Arts Center until he rocked out just a bit too hard, slipped off the back of the seat and fell between the bench and the seat back. No harm, no foul, he got right back up, without so much as a yelp, and went back to the music. It was the energy of the music, the quality of the show, the musicianship and professionalism on stage that made him a life-long fan. Day one.

Thank you for creating music with thematic elements drawing on literature, politics, history of science, and social awkwardness. “Passage to Bangkok” is less about drugs and more about adventure and geography. “Manhattan Project” was the underlying theme song for Ben’s junior history project.

Thank you for showing that three guys can perform songs of wondrous complexity, through hard work, team work and professionalism. It’s been a benchmark for group dynamics at my office for 30 years.

Thank you for never giving up on your musical, personal or band ethics and dynamics. It sends the right message, and a consistent message. And after forty years maybe even “Rolling Stone” noticed.

Thank you for allowing Ben and me to create our own not-quite-secret language, with “Rocinante”, “Lerxst”, “Cygnus”, “Syrinx” and “hold my sausage” conveying rich context and a shared smile.

Thank you for providing the sound track for a lot of late nights, long drives, difficult problem sets, and most of all, much-needed air drumming breaks. I think I have my air tom-toms oriented in reverse of Neil’s kit, and I can’t time a paradiddle to with any consistency in tempo, but it’s been fun for thirty-five years.

Thank you for never, ever, ever mailing it in on stage. Never. Reading Neil Peart’s show and tour diaries I have wondered if he is too much of a perfectionist, but I realize that the consistently high quality of Rush shows comes from that constant self-correction and criticism.

Thank you for breaking out the twin double necks. The Hemispheres-era poster with the band in flowing shirts, striking a pose (while striking cymbals, no less) is timeless, and to see the scene created live — with better clothes, better sound reinforcement, and better optics — is a life experience. The only thing that’s come close was seeing Michaelangelo’s David in Florence — after years of seeing it in pictures, to stand before the sculpture was awe-inspiring and humbling at once. That’s how I felt during “Xanadu,” decades of listening and watching and vignettes of rock history all composed on stage — while the boys from the office were clearly having fun with it.

Two weeks from tonight I will attend (I think) my 11th and quite possibly last Rush show. It is fitting that it’s the last leg of a 3-month celebration of Ben’s 21st birthday, in Vegas, with trips to Ed Roman’s guitar store and the Bellagio poker room also on the itinerary. Thanks, Alex, Geddy and Neil, for helping me raise a young adult with some good role models.

“Any pain is acceptable if love is involved” — Buzz Bissinger, from “Father’s Day.”

It’s all the stuff outside the office that counts.

From Estimated Prophet to Fade Away

[Editorial note and corrected post: Tom corrected my aging memory; I did in fact get him to listen to Rush and so the musical context switch was complete].

My GD50 ticket by mail envelope, showing that indeed artistic talent skips a generation (or two)

My GD50 ticket by mail envelope, showing that indeed artistic talent skips a generation (or two)

Prophetic estimations of ticket lotteries were highly inflated for me; not only did I strike out on all Phish ticket by mail requests but also found myself on the wrong side of multiple money orders, a decorated #2 envelope and some long, strange musical trip references originating in a 1982 cross-campus walk. I have been at best a casual fan of the Grateful Dead; like my ramp-up to Phish phan status I appreciated their studio work but never veered into the live, jam performances. Introductions outside of what played on the album-oriented FM stations in the New York area occurred, as most of the best do, on a slushy early winter day of junior year, as then-roommate (and eternal Deadhead, wonderful friend, playmaker on my first ever ice hockey goal, and incredible cook) Tom got me to listen to “Estimated Prophet” on “Terrapin Station.” What was elided from that brief cassette tape exchange (yes, I had a Walkman, and yes, I provided my own sound track on cross-campus treks to the engineering building) was that “Terrapin” should rightly qualify as a prog album, and that my love of jazz and jazz improvisation would be fueled if I borrowed one of his Dead show tapes, and not just a mix tape with some studio work. Count that as a missed musical connection.

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The Dead’s appearance on Saturday Night Live that featured “Alabama Get Away” is vivid in my memory; it’s intense for a small venue with limited time and it was also common for groups to publicly perform music in advance of the “album drop.” The show pre-dated my real affection for the band but at the time (April 1980), SNL and Don Kirschner’s late night show were about the only two outlets for live music outside of concert venues. With hindsight it was an incongruous format for the band and their performance (how can a jam possibly be bound by the pre-hour commercial break?) and that perhaps left me in a state of two-degrees-separated-from Dead that persisted until the bitter(sweet) end. Stanley Jordan, then a rising solo guitar player and one of “my” jazz DJs at WPRB-FM, found his way to Soldier Field based on his musical friendship with Jeff Chimenti. Bill Walton, scion of California basketball, added celebrity street cred to a farewell that was famously absent the usual red carpet suspects. Phish tour buddy George went full circle, texting me updates from the pit as he completed that revolution in the musical circle of life. Professionally, I intersected John Perry Barlow at a few career arcs, mostly through Sun’s John Gage, and later discovered that his Grateful Dead lyrics credits stem from the first groove on “Terrapin Station” – the highly estimated prophet of digital privacy, security and culture.

And so I find the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows a fitting conclusion to the original band’s, and the surviving members’, musical history. Aside from the “Not Fade Away” and “Touch of Grey” references, they brought the story of the band to its rightful conclusion. The notion of a musician retiring from the very performance that wholly defined his experience is somewhat odd, but in a year when we lost BB King, Ornette Coleman and most recently and suddenly, Chris Squire, I’m slowly conceding that writing the final chapter with intent, grace and a well-defined conclusion is quite respectable. It’s helping me come to grips with the fact that this summer marks the last big-arena tour for Rush, and that the shared musical experiences I’ve had with Ben involving the Holy Trinity of Toronto will also reach a logical conclusion with joy and not sadness. It’s better to end with a win than a loss, in sports, music or love.

Later the same year that I discovered “Terrapin Station,” Tom and I shared a class with a take-home final. It was brutal, and even a week of my effort wasn’t sufficient. The Dead were touring at that time, and Tom left me a note one afternoon (a full 2 days before the due date), taped to a sealed #2 envelope, undecorated save for the honor code pledge, saying “Here’s my exam, please turn it in for me on the due date. Going to see the Dead at Red Rocks.” It’s one of my favorite college memories, and one that I repeat as an example of what a good college experience should be – trust, friendship, scholarship, adventure, and some insanely rich music. I succeeded in getting Tom to listen to Rush (but not Led Zeppelin!) and will always treasure his gentle insistence that I meet him halfway on the Dead.

One day, next tour, I’ll get Tom to join me for a Phish show. Older, greyer, perhaps less in focus than before, I think we have a conclusion to write, rather than let fade out.

Peoplehood I: Red Sector A

My wife and I have been accepted into the Jewish Federation’s “Peoplehood Project” of MetroWest NJ for 2012-2013. With our 50th birthdays and 25th wedding anniversary coming up, we thought this would be an appropriate way to celebrate (the trip back to Italy for the prosciutto visit is another story, and decidedly along a different axis of peoplehood). We’ll be traveling to Israel to explore what it means to be a member of the Jewish people, and how we can be better ambassadors between, and within, our countries. In 2013 we’ll visit the Ukraine, from where most of my family emigrated in the early 20th century, and something that will force me to learn Russian beyond “Uncle Ivan lives in Brighton” (as far as I got with the cassette tape Teach Yourself Russian). I’m most eager to see how our collective viewpoint rotates from the Jewish American to the American who is also a Jew, and to experience as many points as possible along that curve.

For me, the “peoplehood” question stems from discovering new lights who identify as Stars of David, whether it’s musicians, athletes, or business executives. I adore Geddy Lee (bass player for Rush, son of Holocaust survivors, and Canadian to boot) and know that “Geddy” is his proper name “Gary” passed through his grandmother’s Eastern European Yiddishkeit filter. Recently Geddy commented that the Rush song Red Sector A was based on a story of concentration camp liberation. Trivia like this is one more level of detail below Adam Sandler’s “Hankuah Song.” It certainly makes me listen to the album differently, changing the relative word order of “Jewish,” “prog rock” and “fan.” Internalizing culture is a foundation of peoplehood. That and falafel, I think.

In our last few trips to Israel and when hosting Israeli students in NJ, I’ve been struck by the contrast between Israelis and Americans when it comes to how we identify with popular culture. What I found among Israelis is an attraction to the facets of our American lives that resemble pop culture, rather than the Jewish aspects that put us in a small American minority. Being Jewish is just table stakes for Israelis – doing something that they’ve seen in a slice-of-American life movie is interesting. They don’t need Adam Sandler’s “Hanukah Song” to remind them of Jewish celebrities; but they will gladly go to a local, non-celebrated football game to sample a different kind of Friday Night lights.

One of the themes I expect to come up is that of sustainability – how do we ensure that our diverse, geographically and culturally distant communities pay attention to and look out for each other? The prospective downside – failure to create diverse but thriving communities – makes Neal Peart’s Red Sector A haunting lyrics a rallyng cry.

MoCCA Fest From The Other Side

I attended my fifth consecutive MoCCA Festival this weekend, but my first as an exhibitor. Erik and I spun up Amphibimen Comics this summer as a “let’s see what happens” venture, hoping that we’d have enough content and ideas to exhibit at MoCCA nine months later. It came down to the last twelve hours, but we managed to fill our half-table with shirts, comics, original watercolor artwork, and (gasp) business cards. Over the course of 14 exhibit hours, 2 long days, 3 hours of set up, 6 coffees, 3 subs, lots of help from our friend Kristin, and the support of friends and family, we probably spoke to about 200 people one on one.

Lots of observations:

Being sandwiched between two famous people isn’t good for you. My first thought was “Wow, we’re in between the Topatoco tables and Rica Takashima” and that the overflow traffic would browse our wares. The overflow traffic obscured our line of sight. But it was equally amazing to be next to Kate Beaton and Rica all weekend – they are gracious, humble, and completely tolerant of our crap spilling all over the place.

Rica writes yuri (“forbidden girl love”, as a loose Japanese translation, “sexual identity” as a stronger English version). Not sure that everyone who was browsing her half of the table quite grasped that at first, but I’m hoping that anyone who bought her comics went from uncomfortable to understanding. As my friend Jim says “Art should make you uncomfortable” – but that’s just the first step in developing an appreciation for it. Rica also donated all of her proceeds to support Japanese tsunami disaster relief. She and her crew were really outstanding table-mates.

I’m surprised, but not really, how many artists are shy. Erik sometimes says to me that I’m the “people person” in our little operation, and if I think about the artists I’ve gotten to know, they are (mostly) a more introverted bunch. Talking to a few thousand people, doing inscriptions and drawings on the fly, even having to sneak out for food and coffee without a breadcrumb trail of fan boys and girls therefore is much harder than for someone like me who is used to sales, shaking hands, and drawing in traffic. I have a significantly deeper appreciation for show exhibitors who cross outside their own comfort zones to help promote their work (and I’ve added to the list of retirement projects – promotion of independent artists).

I didn’t get to walk around and shop as much as I did as an attendee, and I’ll have to make up the spending deficit in post production. I did, however, get one of Christiann MacAuley’s Steampunk Mr. Peanut t-shirts. Third year in a row I’ve bought something from her. She’s funny.

There’s a collegial spirit at the show that is completely different from technology trade shows. Effectively, everyone is competing for the same eyeballs, the same dollars, the same table traffic. I heard several parents say “Pick one thing” (another side note/rant – when it comes to books, art, or music, why would you ever limit your kids’ consumption? Exposure to variety is good, within budget and reason). Other exhibitors traded books and prints with us, and were happy to talk “shop.” It’s not unexpected, but it’s also a strong statement about the overall feel of MoCCA – it’s independent artists building brands and gaining visibility, not pure commercial interests.

I had the pleasure of meeting SP Burke, the creator of “Oh, Goodie” and a fellow Rush fan. Saw one of his prints of the other Holy Trinity and laughed out loud, we did the instant bonding-over-Lerxst thing, and I offered him a spare ticket for the Rush show last night at the Garden. Yes, he didn’t know Rush was in town, and yes, we had a great time at the show. If only he knew how prophetic his “Working Man” comic (day before MoCCA started) would be [ed note for the uninitiated: Rush finished the show with “Working Man”]

For me the hardest part was changing my mindset between Saturday and Sunday. My expectation on Saturday was that we’d sell a lot of shirts and comics, and I’ve had to worry about walking through New York with a carnie roll of bills. We didn’t even cover our pro-rated costs on Saturday. But another artist told me “I’m happy if I make cab fare from the airport home” I felt better, and once again remembered the goal is to build readership. So we started giving away the black and white comics (total cost to print being a fraction of our outlay) and suddenly we had traffic. Best part of the day was someone leafing through Issue #1 and asking how Erik achieved one of the stippling effects. Close second – Bill Plympton himself picked up a copy, and then he stopped to talk comics with Erik on the show floor.

Final random thought: For years I’ve wondered if the way we teach history and literature (English) is outdated. When we were stuck with a hierarchy of writing forms – letters, diaries, memoirs, journals and books – it made perfect sense to use prose as a way to analyze and convey meaning. But face it – (almost) everyone likes “West Side Story” more than “Romeo and Juliet”. It’s funnier, it has better music and it’s a more contemporary treatment of star crossed lovers. I’ve seen my own kids get to use alternative media to explore the language arts: blogs written from the perspective of Holden Caufield, or a mockup of a character’s Facebook page. Why not? The goal is to teach analysis, critical thinking and to discover thematic elements, and you can do that through any number of expressive vehicles. Put another way: Kate Beaton should teach history through comics, because more people would grok Santayana’s quotes about remembering the past.